JON SCOTT (PatriotsInsider.com): Media outlets have been singing he Lions praises as being a better team this year, but their record still isn't one that reflects the progress. Is Detroit better now than before (and why)?
NATE CAMINATA (RoarReport.com): I think there's a significant difference in terms of talent on both sides of the football. Detroit is playing games considerably close (they're losing by an average of less than a touchdown), and forcing opponents to work for everything. But as I've said before, the only currency that matters in the NFL is winning. Although Detroit is improving, they're so far behind the curve; the rest of the league is also on the concurrent march to better themselves, too.
On a unit-by-unit basis, this franchise is eons ahead of where they wee just a year ago. They've already surpassed last year's sack total (Ndamukong Suh has had a hand in those efforts), the secondary isn't swiss cheese any longer, and -- when healthy -- the offense has enough firepower to stay with any team in the league. Unfortunately, things like chemistry and health are as pertinent as that talent, and the Lions don't have enough of either to make that long-awaited splash.
SCOTT: The Lions have the 6th best passing attack in the NFL, but have issues running the ball. The Patriots pass defense is 31st in the league. Although the stats say this is a huge advantage for Detroit, will the Lions be able to continue their success against the Patriots or is it more about finding success in garbage time? (nearly 400 of those yards came from big leads over Indy and Pittsburgh.)'
CAMINATA: Although injuries have severely crippled his contributions, Matthew Stafford has been key in Detroit's lofty aerial status. In between two shoulder injuries, he tossed six touchdowns and just one interception, generally appearing unstoppable. The team has lost a bit of that gusto under Shaun Hill, who is an effective back-up, but doesn't possess the downfield cannon that Stafford enjoys.
Because of Stafford's absence, and an injury-afflicted backfield, expect the Lions to appear somewhat one-dimensional against New England; they'll use short passes to replicate a running game, and take shots whenever they can. But rest assured, this "6th ranked passing offense" won't put up fireworks against the Patriots.
SCOTT: The Patriots are playing (starting) four rookies this season and though they make mistakes, they're contributing well. What kind of impact is the Detroit rookie class having?
Rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has registered 7 sacks in 2010, the most at his position.
CAMINATA: Suh could stop playing right now but remain a shoo-in for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He leads all defensive tackles with 7 sacks, and has easily eclipsed expectations from a rookie defensive lineman. Of course, it helps playing beside talents like Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams. Jahvid Best was explosive before dual turf-toe injuries derailed his campaign, hindering the team's running game. Defensively, the team has parlayed cornerback Amari Spievey's athleticism into safety help, but he continues to learn the position.
Later-round picks Willie Young (DT) and Jason Fox (OT) are more developmental picks, but both are intriguing. If the Lions had only secured Suh from this class, Detroit's 2010 draft would still be considered an epic success. He's just that good.
SCOTT: How have injuries impacted the Lions and what injuries do you see as a significant issue for them this week against the Patriots?
CAMINATA: I think any team that loses its starting quarterback (sans New England) will struggle to adapt or remain successful. Stafford wasn't just the public face of the franchise, he was a locker room leader; the vibrant, charistmatic alpha male that demanded respect in the huddle, his absence is paramount to the 2010 Lions season. In every game that he played this year, Detroit either won, or they were leading prior to his departure. Some excuses are legitimate. With that said, each game Stafford misses appears to be "significant," including Thursday's contest.
Two other injuries to note should be Best's turf toe and defensive end Cliff Avril's quadriceps. Each would typically start in this contest, and their availability -- and ability to be effective -- is key.
SCOTT:The Patriots use a variety of targets in the short to mid level passing game. Yet a lot of their success comes from the tight end position. How will Detroit counter that, and do they have the personnel to machup?
CAMINATA: Outside linebacker Julian Peterson has done a solid job of limiting the production of some of the game's finer tight ends this season, including Chris Cooley, Dustin Keller, and Jason Witten. There really hasn't been a tight end that has exposed him, because it's a role he's familiar with handling. But because of Brady's penchant for the short to intermediate routes, the Lions will rely heavily on the veteran Peterson's athleticism to handle tight ends, and anyone emerging from the backfield.
If the Lions hope to contain Brady, and prevent the methodical Pats' offense, Peterson will have to turn in his best performance of the season to date.
SCOTT: What is the Lions biggest weakness and how can New England exploit it?
CAMINATA: The Lions will be one dimensional on Sunday. If New England takes that away, it should be a cake walk.
If the Patriots can disrupt the passing lanes of Hill long enough, Detroit's offense will stall. This effort obviously includes quelling the impact of Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson. The previously winless Bills were able to force Detroit's weaponry to grow stagnant, and it affected the team's rhythm throughout the contest. If Buffalo can manage it, New England will nuke it. Given the lack of any viable running threat in the backfield, the Lions will appear desperate to move the football through the air. And if that option isn't there, the game could be over by halftime.
SCOTT: Detroit has lost a number of very close games which should give them hope that they're close, the Jets game is on that comes to mind. Do you think they're close to turning the corner?
CAMINATA: Absolutely. Much of their success hinges on the right shoulder of Matthew Stafford, and there's no doubt in my mind that if he were healthy, this game would be much more pivotal (and thus, more enjoyable). They need to finish the year strong, however, to remind everyone in 2011 that this Detroit Lions roster is capable of winning ball games. A win on Thursday on national television would go a long way.
Nate Caminata's Prediction:
The Lions are scrappy, and they've played each of their eight losses close. But at the end of the day they remain 2-8, and a shadow of themselves without the services of Matthew Stafford at quarterback. With a depleted offensive backfield, they're now leaning on a defense that was considered the weakness of the team. They'll challenge New England, and probably won't get embarrassed before a nationwide audience, but don't have the weapons to keep up with Tom Brady and company.
Patriots 24, Lions 17